“The Offers,” the last poem published by Ted Hughes, appeared in the London Sunday Times on this day in 1998, ten days before his death. In Her Husband (2003), a study of the Hughes-Plath marriage, Diane Middlebrook makes a case for “The Offers” being the most important poem written by the post-Plath Hughes — “the turning point in his creative life,” a poem that “sends a pulse of light back through every page” he wrote after her suicide, or about it. “The Offers” was not included with the Plath-related poems in the prizewinning Birthday Letters (1998). “As a winemaker sets aside the choicest vintage for special labeling,” says Middlebrook, Hughes reserved “The Offers” and ten other poems for a small, expensive, limited edition titled Howls and Whispers, published the same year. Chief among the “nightmares” of the smaller collection, “The Offers” recounts three occasions when Hughes is offered a ghostly vision of Plath. She is first “a saddened substitute / Returned to me by death”; and then “Young as before, untouched by death”; then the poem’s last, guilt-burdened lines:
…But suddenly — the third time — you were there.
Younger than I had ever known you. You
As if new made, half a wild roe, half
A flawless thing, priceless, faceted
Like a cobalt jewel. You came behind me
(At my helpless moment, as I lowered
A testing foot into the running bath)
And spoke — peremptory, as a familiar voice
Will startle out of a river’s uproar, urgent,
Close: “This is the last. This one. This time
Don’t fail me.”
In her last chapter Middlebrook notes that one of Hughes’s writing projects over his last months was an adaptation of Alcestis, the Euripidean tragedy in which a devoted wife and queen, Alcestis, agrees to give her life to save her husband (after first extracting promises that he will take care of her children and not remarry). At the play’s end, Alcestis miraculously returns to her husband from the underworld.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.